The Sheldon Richardson signing was a continuation of two offseason themes for the Minnesota Vikings. Again, they spent money on the defense. And again, they reunited with an old friend.
Richardson was cut by the Cleveland Browns earlier in the offseason to clear salary cap space. During his first stint with the Vikings, Richardson was supposed to be the final piece on a defense that had lacked a true 3-technique since Shariff Floyd underwent career-ending surgery in 2016. Instead, his 4.5 sacks in 2018 earned him a three-year, $36 million contract from the Browns. Minnesota got him back for one year at $3.6 million.
He’ll join a defensive line that has been revamped. Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Jones III, Janarius Robinson, and Jaylen Twyman all were added this offseason. Michael Pierce is set to play nose tackle, and Tomlinson is expected to play 3-technique. So how does Richardson fit in?
Pierce and Tomlinson will almost certainly be the starters as long as they are healthy and provide a space-eating presence in the middle of the line that stymies the opponents’ run game. Given how poorly the Vikings’ run defense played last season, it would be hard to see any reality where a pass-rushing specialist like Richardson would usurp either of them. Richardson will most likely make an impact on third down where he can focus on rushing the quarterback in obvious passing situations.
While Pierce and Tomlinson are great run-stuffers, neither of them have much experience when it comes to rushing the passer. Throughout his career, Pierce has only recorded 3.5 sacks, and Tomlinson has eight. On third downs, Mike Zimmer could allow Pierce some rest and shift Tomlinson over to nose tackle. This would allow for pressure to come from up the middle and force quarterbacks outside into the paths of the oncoming defensive ends. This rotation would also be helpful given Pierce’s struggles with asthma. It would give him plays off while providing him with a backup who has starter-level skills.
Richardson will likely be the backup 3-technique, but there is an interesting wrinkle Zimmer and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson could add to the defense. While the Vikings have played in a 4-3 scheme the entirety of Zimmer’s time in Minnesota, they could potentially switch it up this season and throw different looks at opposing offenses. With both Richardson and Tomlinson’s ability to play snaps at the defensive end in an odd front, the Vikings could transition to adding more 3-4 sets.
Both Patterson and Zimmer have been at the forefront of creating new looks to toss at quarterbacks on third downs, like the double A-gap look that made them so successful years ago. For this look, Pierce would line up as the sole nose tackle, with Tomlinson and Richardson flanking him on either side at defensive end while Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter would line up as pass-rushing outside linebackers.
It would be a surprise if Zimmer changed alignments, but it would make sense in some ways. It was reported that in his renegotiated deal, Barr has a sack incentive for $3 million. This would allow Barr to play in a more natural role where he could use his athleticism to finally get after the quarterback. This look could also see Chazz Surratt team up in the middle with Eric Kendricks to use their athleticism to cover sideline to sideline because they would have reduced responsibilities in coverage or against opposing ball carriers.
While they might look to keep a level of continuity with the 4-3, if the Vikings were to innovate and add other looks, it would utilize Richardson as a starter and add some pass rushing to their defensive line without sacrificing anything against the run game.